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Telling the Stories of Social Entrepreneurship

Storytelling is woven throughout the Skoll Foundation’s DNA—central to the mission since its inception because of Jeff’s firm belief in the transformative power of a story well-told. Telling the stories of social entrepreneurs is critical to large-scale change. These are stories that inspire and galvanize, provoke and inform, and move people to rethink their world by showing them that change is possible. Storytelling is a crucial catalyst that is a critical core competency for any individual or organization seeking social change.

Social entrepreneurs have the audacity to investigate some of the world’s thorniest problems and the daring to craft solutions. In the face of an unjust status quo, social entrepreneurs step forward and say, “it doesn’t have to be this way.” They look at entrenched and unequal systems and pull them apart.

But changing the world is a team sport. To truly change these badly broken systems, other entrepreneurs need to refine and replicate these models; businesses need to adopt them, activists need to push for them; and decision-makers need to craft policies to support them. And the power of every spoke in that hub is maximized through storytelling, building awareness, and engaging a range of audiences.

When all of these actors work together to solve an intractable problem, the larger narrative of what’s possible emerges: equilibrium change. That’s the Skoll Foundation’s north star and the driving force behind its storytelling initiatives, moving people to not just see the world as it is today, but as it could be tomorrow.

This audio selection exploring the power of a story well told features excerpts of Sally’s conversation with Sandy Herz, Skoll Foundation’s Director of Global Partnerships.

Sandy Herz: So I believe we’re here to focus on storytelling primarily.

Sally Osberg: We are.

Sandy: I think it’s been striking to me throughout my time at Skoll, how unique we are in having storytelling so embedded in our DNA. Of course, our first big storytelling experience together was The New Heroes. And I know a little bit about some of that history, but it would be great to hear from you.

Sally: Well, The New Heroes is one of those ideas that was not my idea. It didn’t come from the foundation. It came from the prolific Mike Malone. Just as he took hold of the connect idea in suggesting that we partner with the Saîd Business School at Oxford, he was off to the races in thinking we should do a PBS series on social entrepreneurs.

Sandy: He talked about it as taking social entrepreneurship public. He wanted it to be the IPO.

Sally: I thought it was a great idea,  butI didn’t have a clue how complicated it would be or become.

Sandy: We learned a lot together that first year.

Sally: Our challenge always is how to drive impact from whatever we do. So it was not enough to create these great stories and to bring them to PBS, but to think about how we could use them to drive knowledge and, and impact in the world.

You needed tangible action and real people to take hold of this to actually make something happen in the world. And your contribution to that was outstanding, and so maybe it’s my turn to ask you how you came up with the idea for the house parties.

Sandy: There was a study at Johns Hopkins at the time that I remember reading that said people are much more likely to take action if they have a conversation with other people and say out loud what their reactions are and what they plan to do. So the idea with the house parties was to offer people a DVD that we could mail. Then we would match any contribution that they made, 100%.

Sally: And they were to make the contributions to the organizations who were profiled in the series, and we raised $250,000 for these organizations.

Sandy: Then we ended up directly investing in folks like PBS NewsHour, and Frontline.

Sally: And that is one of my absolute all-time favorite stories. Our supporting Frontline World to go out into the world and identify these stories of, of social entrepreneurs. And one of the stories that Frontline World came upon was of Kiva in its early days. I’ll let you tell the story, Sandy.

Sandy: It’s funny how success often comes from unexpected places. So when they flagged the Kiva story as one they wanted to tell, it was a very small organization. They were 30 days from running out of money. I thought, Boy, I don’t know if they’re going to make it. Then the story actually aired on Halloween night in 2006. And I thought, Everybody’s going to be out or at their door giving out candy. And instead, people went to give money on Kiva, so much so that it crashed their servers.

Sally: And Kiva actually had a board meeting—I believe the day before—where they were preparing to shutter the operation. They weren’t going to meet payroll. And it literally was the Frontline World story and those contributors who came on board that turned the tide for Kiva. So, as I said, it’s one of my favorite stories of the power of investing, connecting and celebrating because that’s what celebrating is. It’s shining a spotlight.

I’m looking at this magnificent Emmy and it’s another tribute to your leadership and vision, and achievements. So tell us about, tell us about our first Emmy, Sandy.

Sandy: So I, I would say this is a testament to our partners and to the power of our storytelling strategy. This Emmy sitting in front of us was for the virtual reality piece, Collisions, which is about Nyarri Morgan, an aboriginal elder in Australia. It’s about the collision between what we may view as progress and traditional wisdom. It premiered first at Sundance, but then almost immediately at the World Economic Forum, where it was experienced by CEOs for Australian mining companies, and government officials, and western leaders.

Sally: It tells the story of the Skoll Foundation’s journey through this storytelling landscape. And that really goes back to Jeff and his sense right from the beginning that an important story well-told can really move hearts and minds, inspire action and do a far more effective job than beating people over the head with a lot of information that they are just not open to receiving.

Sandy: You know, we developed a way to address the question of: “How can storytelling lead to impact?” We came up with an answer that was grounded in our mission, grounded in Jeff’s vision of moving people from not being aware of what’s possible, to understanding solutions are possible, to starting to engage with those solutions, and ultimately to get to the impact.

Rather than focusing specifically on the number of clicks or views—it’s looking at creating a movement towards a shift in how the world operates and getting to that impact, that moment when legislation is passed in Australia, or the minister of health makes a commitment to eradicating rheumatic heart disease. So not trying to say to a story that is aired once, that it’s going to change everything. But rather, we’re going to move people through these stages and we’re going to target the people who are best in a position to do that.

Sally: We’re going to create the experience that will open them, open them to something they didn’t know, they didn’t understand.

Sandy: Exactly.

Sally: And maybe shift their perception of what’s possible.

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